Conflict at Diverse Austin Church Leads to Claims of Spiritual Abuse

Por Bob Smietana
conflict diverse austin
Cristal Porter and family. (Courtesy of Porter)

When Cristal Porter and her family first visited Hope Community Church in Austin, they felt a sense of relief. 

Led by pastor Aaron Reyes and his wife, Michelle Ami Reyes, known for their expertise in helping Christians talk about race, the congregation of about 135 was filled with people of color and diverse couples like the Porters. The church aspires to be a “meaningful community where people can find lifelong relationships, mutual support, and a sense of belonging,” something the Porters had longed for.

“Just looking around the room was really healing,” Porter said.

Aaron Reyes diverse austin
Hope Community Church lead pastor Aaron Reyes. (Courtesy church website)

The Porters threw themselves into the life of Hope, becoming small group leaders and making friends in the congregation. By the fall, Porter had joined the staff part time, with the hope of a full-time role in the future.

Within a year, everything had fallen apart. Disagreements among the staff led one of the pastors to resign, turning long-simmering tension at Hope into all-out conflict and eventually into public allegations of spiritual abuse and calls for an investigation of church leaders.

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After Porter accused church leaders of spiritual abuse in a July 5 Twitter post, Michelle Reyes responded on Twitter and accused Porter of lies and slander. She also dismissed the claims of other critics.

“These are wealthier white folks, trying to gentrify our church,” she tweeted. “They’ve caused horrific pain/trauma to our 1st gen immigrants.”

The conflict at Hope seems to be a mix of personality clashes, unclear expectations, questionable leadership decisions, a lack of healthy church structure, as well as a congregation where everything revolved around the pastor and his wife, whose platforms as experts in cross-cultural engagement among Christians have grown in recent years.

Aaron Reyes is a board member for Crete Collective, which plants multiethnic churches. Michelle Reyes is an influential author and speaker, known for her award-winning book, “Becoming All Things.” She’s also vice president of the Asian American Christian Collaborative.

In an email, Hope leaders denied any abuse but acknowledged an ongoing conflict at the church. The elders also distanced themselves from Michelle Reyes’ remarks, saying she was an unpaid volunteer at the church and not an elder.

“Dr. Reyes’ views are her own and not representative of the elder team,” the elders said in an email.

michelle reyes austin diverse
Michelle Reyes stands with her book “The Race-Wise Family.” (Courtesy of Reyes’s Facebook)

Conflict at the church exploded after the departure of James Gómez, a former associate pastor at Hope. He had been hired at the church in 2021 and said he began to have concerns about the health of the church and about Reyes’ leadership style. 

Gómez said in an interview that he tried to implement some changes, slowing down the pace of new programs and urging Aaron Reyes and church leaders to spend more time listening to the congregation. They responded, he said, by accusing him of failing to support Reyes’ spiritual leadership.

By March 2022, he had resigned. His departure led to confusion and anger among church members and staffers like Porter, who had questions about what had gone wrong. In response, the church’s elders — Aaron Reyes, Josh Posada and Matt Price — accused Gómez of lying to church members and his wife, Angela, of sowing “seeds of division and strife.”

Things heated up after the church elders released a report, which criticized church members for failing to control their tongues. That report admitted Aaron Reyes and other leaders had made mistakes but dismissed any claim of abuse. 

The elders gave church members two choices: submit or leave.

Church elders also brought a “prophetess” to a church meeting, where she detailed an elaborate dream about Aaron Reyes being under attack by the devil. They also cited two prophetesses in their report.

“To make it clearer, in the words of two prophetesses in our church, we are here because the evil one has used the words of a few to inflict damage upon our church,” they wrote.

Porter said that conflict with Gómez revealed a significant flaw at Hope. Staff and church members were expected to obey Reyes and other leaders without question and were punished if they refused to do so.

Complicating matters, Porter had gone on maternity leave about the time Gómez resigned. She had planned to take a full-time job with the church after her leave was over. But that job offer fell apart, she said, due to the conflict.

Church members Derrick and Rennee Woods felt church leaders used those prophetic dreams to attack anyone who disagreed with them. During the meeting, Derrick said he questioned why the church leaders spent more than half an hour discussing a dream at a church meeting to address conflict.

austin church diverse
Derrick and Rennee Woods, attendees of Hope Community Church in Austin, Texas. (Photo courtesy of Woods)

“It was narrative spinning,” said Woods, who is Black. “They were trying to tell a different story about how they were under attack by the devil, which implied that the devil was controlling those of us with legitimate concerns about church leadership.”

In an email to media, the church’s elders said the conflict was caused by both legitimate disagreements and the devil. They defended the decision to have a prophetess speak, saying the church believes in the gift of prophecy.

“Practicing spiritual gifts and being aware of spiritual warfare is not spiritual abuse in the Bible,” they said.

Kyle Howard, a preacher and trauma-informed soul care provider, sees the use of prophetesses to bolster leaders at Hope as troubling. Howard, who has spoken to Hope members and advocated for an investigation, said that crosses the line from unhealthy church practice to abuse.

“They leveraged spiritual power — that is supposed to be used to reconcile — and made it a tool to silence people,” he said. 

The conflict at Hope has been met with dismay and calls for a third-party investigation into allegations of spiritual abuse at the church, most notably from writer Helen Lee, who co-authored a recent book with Michelle Reyes called “The Race-Wise Family.”

“Given the allegations, it’s clear to me that a credible third-party investigation of all that has transpired under the Reyes’s leadership is necessary and crucial to discerning the full truth,” Lee wrote in a public statement. 

Bob SmietanaBob Smietana es reportero nacional de Religion News Service.

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12 pensamientos sobre “Conflict at Diverse Austin Church Leads to Claims of Spiritual Abuse”

  1. Funny how pastors always think the devil is using others to attack them, but would never imagine they themselves might be used by the devil to attack others. Hiding in Spiritual warfare and demonizing those calling for accountability is the refuge of small people who are unfit to lead. Btw I am a former Senior Pastor

  2. Once you have been in a cult – you can recognize the stink – classic stink here….

    Cut my teeth at Community Chapel and Bible Training Center (Normandy Park, Burien) in my 20s when I bought most of the line for years – but coming out was a major wake-up call…

    Then time at Mars Hill when I was older – I knew something was wrong the moment I walked in…. but never got too involved – too many excited but ignorant and guillible young people.

    Just saw the same at another church last night – everything is so forced/artifical to connect with God – including the dirge-y evangelical music and repetitive lyrics (say “OMMM”) – but this is pretty standard practice in evangelical churches.

    Oh well…. Hope God will open eyes.

    1. Marcos Gunderson

      It’s not really a substantially different account than the stories about Bethlehem Baptist. The leadership circled the wagons around the abusive person in power. Dissenting staff or elders and members departed and then were badmouthed. These families were attracted to a church they thought they could relate to because of of the application of Scripture to social issues, rather than a church that had squeaky clean high theology.

      In both cases they were disappointed.

  3. Reading TRR articles as I do, to help keep myself alive to the crucial aspect of being human that we tend to call “spiritual”, I’m minded to judge that we need to constantly review and refresh the ideas and understanding we come to rely on. Ideas such as “spiritual abuse”; lest we begin with understanding and impulse that is good (TOV), and then degrade that goodness as we too readily and exclusively resort to our own understanding.
    For instance, I can see the possibility of a spiritual project to which the idea of current prophetesses is integral. I can see how some might be strongly attracted to congregation across that project, on first exposure; but then encounter comprehensive tensions and difficulties, regards integrating and articulating that congregation when moving forward from initial exposure. Where all that this article reports and comments on, could be explained in terms of that complexity in congregational intention, without drawing in the idea of spiritual abuse.
    My sense is, that we can individually access spirituality (and that perhaps a characteristic of God-centred spirituality); where securing authentic congregation is another matter entirely.

  4. Brian patricio

    What a massive surprise here, folks.

    A slick, worldly, hip, “relevant” megachurch turns out to be a house of arrogance and manipulation. Who ever would have guessed?

    Read the Bible, people, and stop conflating stadiums and pop concerts with worshiping God in his earthly abode.

      1. Brian patricio

        marca gunson,

        Did you read the preceding sentence? “Led by pastor Aaron Reyes and his wife, Michelle Ami Reyes, known for their expertise in helping Christians talk about race…”

        This nonsense isn’t coming out of humble faithful community churches. This is the seeker-driven drivel that is being spewed out of the megachurch world–the Osteens, Hybelses, Warrens, Greears, Woods of the world. Normal functioning churches don’t drive divisive wedges within their flock, separating the Jew and the Greek.

        The megachurch movement owns this. 100% of it.

        1. Marin Heiskell

          Help me understand what part of this is “seeker-driven”?
          As I have shared in other threads, given the experiences I have had across various evangelical churches, I sure wish someone would come in and help us talk about race.
          And is something wrong with a church being “seeker-driven”? I’ve been to some churches that did a REALLY good job of introducing those who are new to church (or have been turned off by church) to the gospel and baptizing new disciples. I’ve been to others that were better at maturing disciples.
          No one fellowship is great at everything, so I understand those going to those that meet you where you are in their faith and help you grow from there. For some, that is starting with the basics. Is that bad? And this is not limited to megachurches, although you seem to have an outright hatred for them, given your tendency to label ALL of them – their pastors, members, etc.

          1. Marcos Gunderson

            If you read his first post he thought this was a megachurch, complete with stadiums and pop concerts.

            When I pointed out it had 135 people even before many of them resigned in protest, he still claimed it was about megachurches.

            You’d really think he’d be more interested in the part about the prophetesses being brought in to vindicate the leadership than blaming this on megachurches.

  5. Seems to be the basic problem of importing a worldly structure into church governance.
    The pastor is NOT CEO, NOT ‘the boss’, and no, NOT ‘leader’. The pastor and the elders serve the church, they counsel, advise, suggest, and above all (like a good leader, incidentally) they listen, care and put others’ interests before their own.

  6. Why…oh why…oh why are there soooo many pastors who are tyrants who get offended at the least bit of questioning. No matter how pure and sincere the question or concern is, they take offense to it. It happens everywhere, no matter what the size of the Church is.

    It was like this in the last church I went to that also had a small congregation of around 120 attendees every Sunday. You couldn’t bring anything up without the Pastor getting offended. Whatever you said, he would perceive you to be telling him how to do his job when that was absolutely not the case at all. Just asking routine operational questions was like walking on egg shells. It didn’t take me long to leave.

    I’ve attended Church my entire life and served in numerous capacities, including Sunday School teacher and elder for a long time. Now I don’t attend any church because I am so discouraged by how many Pastors are basically little Hitlers and Stalins who are not suitable to be a Pastor. From reading the Roys Report, many of even the big time Pastors are tyrants and unethical people. So extremely discouraging.

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